Paris-Geneva, July 28, 2020 – On July 25, 2020, eminent human rights defender Azimjan Askarov died in custody, after a decade behind bars. Until the end, and despite his critical health status and repeated calls for his release, authorities refused to provide the critically ill 69-year-old with independent medical assistance and to set him free. The Observatory calls for an impartial and transparent investigation into the death of the defender, so that all those responsible be held accountable.
Mr. Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was the director of Vozdukh, a human rights organisation in Kyrgyzstan documenting widespread police brutality. He was serving a life sentence in penitentiary colony No. 19 in Bishkek since his arrest on June 15, 2010, immediately after inter-ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities that were accompanied by police violence. The human rights defender had been accused of, among other charges, participating in mass riots, inciting ethnic hatred, and complicity in the murder of a police officer. The case was built on testimonies extracted under torture and on statements from Kyrgyz police officers whose work and human rights violations Mr. Askarov had been documenting. As reported by the Observatory in its 2016 report “Kyrgyzstan at a crossroads: shrink or widen the scene for human rights defenders,” from the very beginning of the judicial proceedings in 2010, the case was marked as politically motivated.
Over the past decade, FIDH Honorary President Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH Presidents Karim Lahidji and Dimitris Christopoulos, as well as FIDH Vice President Ales Bialiatski had travelled to Kyrgyzstan within the framework of Observatory field missions, in an attempt to visit Mr. Askarov in jail and secure his release. In March 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (CCPR) found that Mr. Askarov was arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and otherwise ill-treated without redress, and was not given a fair trial, urging Kyrgyzstan to immediately release him. Furthermore, in an April 2016 statement, the European Union called on Kyrgyzstan to “fully implement” the Committee’s Opinion. Those repeated calls were all disregarded by the authorities.
FIDH’s member organisation Bir Duino asserted yesterday that, in light of the systematic disregard by the Kyrgyz authorities to release Azimjan Askarov, including on humanitarian grounds due to the critical deterioration of his health, his death would amount to an extrajudicial killing, as defined by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
On July 22, 2020, Mr. Askarov’s lawyer, Valerian Vakhitov, reported that the human rights defender’s health had critically deteriorated. During the visit, Mr. Askarov was not able to walk by himself, could barely speak, and presented Covid-19 symptoms, including coughing and dizziness. The lawyer noted that Mr. Askarov had significantly lost weight: he had no appetite for over 10 days and had been receiving glucose and vitamin injections. He died three days later in penitentiary institution No. 47, where he had been transferred the day before for a medical check-up.
The Observatory is appalled by the death of Mr. Askarov and expresses its condolences and heartfelt solidarity with his family, colleagues, and friends. In line with demands from Mr. Askarov’s family, the Observatory also urges the Kyrgyz authorities – including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Ombudsman – to authorise the transfer of his body out of the country, and the Uzbek President to allow for the defender to be buried in Uzbekistan.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.